Forgiveness and Justice

by David Clayton

Almost every view of the plan of salvation sees the issue as a legal question. In fact, I have never seen an explanation of the reason why Jesus had to die and why sinners are condemned to death, which did not explain it in legal terms. The basic idea is this:

God has sentenced me to die. Why? I have committed sin, I have transgressed the law, therefore, a sentence of death hangs over me. How does God cancel that sentence? How does he clear the record of sin from the books so that He can declare me innocent? The popular concept says that when God sees the blood of Christ, God changes His mind about me and He says, “I forgive.” Because of the death of His Son, God is able to change His mind.

What is forgiveness?

This popular concept views forgiveness as an attitude of mind. If one person does something that hurts another, then the one who is hurt should not harbor ill feeling against the one who hurt him. This is seen as, “forgiveness.” Men have attributed this concept of forgiveness to God, so the idea is, when I do wrong, God's attitude towards me changes, God has hard feelings against me, and God says, “before I can change my mind and I can feel good about you again, I've got to have blood and if its not yours then it's going to be the blood of my Son! When that blood is shed and I see that blood, I will cancel the record of your sin in my mind, and in the books and I will think well of you again.” Maybe this is a crude way of expressing it, but ultimately, this is really how popular theology views the issue of God's forgiveness.

Something is very wrong with this concept. What does the Bible say about God? “God is love,” and God does not change. If God ever literally changes His mind about anything, then it cannot be true that God is unchangeable. All of God's ways are perfect, all of His ways are ways of love, therefore, it is impossible for God to ever change. When we have to understand God's forgiveness in terms of God changing, then we should realize that this concept of God's forgiveness is a false concept. This is where people have gone wrong, they have not understood the biblical concept of forgiveness. The sacrifice of Christ was not made so that God could change his mind.

For Christ's sake

And yet the Bible says, in Ephesians 4:32,

And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you. (Eph 4:32)

Why has God forgiven you? It is “for Christ sake.” This is a basic, fundamental teaching of the Bible, God forgives, “for Christ sake.” But what does that mean? Does it mean that God's attitude changes because of Christ? Is forgiveness really a change of attitude, or is there something more to biblical forgiveness? Does forgiveness affect God or does it affect man? Does it affect some ethereal, intangible thing called, “justice,” something with no name, no face to which God and man are subject? What does forgiveness really mean and who does it affect?

The undebatable truth is, God always loved me, always had His hands reaching out to me. When I discovered that fact it changed my life. I learned to appreciate Him, and this appreciation has grown with every passing day. He never had a negative thought towards us and as we build upon that principle we will find that our understanding of God and His word will become more clear. Our picture of Him will be more in keeping with the truth that, “God is Love.”

So, God's forgiveness is not, and never was about God changing His mind towards us.

Biblical forgiveness

Lets look at a passage in Luke that clarifies this issue:

Take heed to yourselves: If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him. (4) And if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him. (Luke 17:3-4)

In this statement, Jesus was trying to express the kind of nature that God has. He presented the scenario of a person who continually transgressed against another – as much as seven times in a single day. His command to us is that we should forgive such a person. According to the passage, what are the conditions on which we are to forgive that person? It is on condition that he repent. But suppose the person does not repent, am I to forgive him? The popular answer is, “of course we should forgive.”

But let us consider something for a moment here, if we do not repent of our sins, will God forgive? The answer is, no. According to the Bible, God does not forgive if we do not repent, and God is not asking us to do what He does not do.

Why must a person repent before he can be forgiven? The answer bcomes clear when we understand what biblical forgiveness really is:

Contrary to popular belief, forgiveness in the Bible, is not a change of attitude in the mind, forgiveness is actually a restored relationship . Forgiveness is not a one sided transaction, but is an experience in which both parties are reconciled. A better word for this biblical concept of forgiveness is really, “reconciliation.” It is not just simply that God's mind changes about us, but it is an experience which brings a person back into unrestricted fellowship and harmony with God.

If it was simply a matter that the mind of the offended party needed to be changed, then there would be no need for forgiveness, because God, the offended Person, always thought well about us. He never ever had a single negative thought towards even the vilest sinner. Yet God says the sinner must repent before he is forgiven. Why is this so? What is the reason for it? Let us consider the following scenario:

If a friend comes to my home and steals a thousand dollars, the common understanding of forgiveness requires me to forgive the person. This means that I should take the person back into my friendship as though it had never happened. So the next time this friend comes visiting I must let him have free access to my house again. This time he makes off with two thousand dollars! But I know that I am supposed to forgive him, so I keep a good attitude towards him and treat him as though he never did anything wrong and I let him have the run of my home, yet again. Not surprisingly, next time he gets away with ten thousand dollars. If I keep this up, soon I won't have any house left, and even though I have the spirit of Christ, something in me is becoming more and more disturbed. The truth is, our relationship is deteriorating rapidly because a good relationship must be built on trust!

This person needs to at least come to the place where he says, “I recognize I was wrong and I'm sorry,” if he does this, at least there is a basis for us to rebuild our relationship. He might steal from me again, but at least, I know on the basis of his apology that this is not his intention. If he doesn't intend to do it and it happens, and I know he is sorry, I have something to work with because he wants to do better.

The problem is when he wont recognize that there is something wrong. If he doesn't repent, then I will have to make sure he doesn't cross my doorway again, until he recognizes he has done something wrong!

So in the Biblical sense of forgiveness, God does not restore a relationship until we recognize that there is something wrong with us. When we repent and we say, “God, I have done something that hurts you, I don't know how to help it, but I'm sorry I hurt you,” God says “there is a basis for us to be friends again: I never expected you not to fail again, you are just a poor worm you can't do anything without me, but if you recognize you need my help, I can work with you.” That's why he says, “repent.”

We can see that repentance, forgiveness, and cleansing are not really different events. They are basically different aspects of the same experience. The Bible teaches in Col 2:10 that, “you are complete in Him.” When we come to God, in Christ, we are forgiven, we are set apart, we experience a life which is complete. The fact is that forgiveness, from the biblical perspective, is best described by the English word “Reconciliation.” It is a process by which humanity and God are brought together again in a relationship where the shadows and barriers between them are removed. It is not a process by which God's thinking is adjusted.

Limited concepts

It is true that sometimes when we look at the Bible it uses terms which seem to suggest that it is God's mind which needs to change, but does God intend that we should accept these statements superficially without considering the kind of person He has revealed Himself to be? It is important for us to consider the entire revelation which God gives of Himself in the Bible and not just to limit ourselves to some sections of His word.

When people asked Him, “shall a man put away his wife for every cause?” Jesus' answer was, “No.” When they responded by pointing out that Moses had given permission for divorce on trivial grounds, Jesus said, “Moses allowed this because of the hardness of your hearts.” But was it Moses who had given the command authorizing divorce? Of course not, those commands were from God – in fact, it was Jesus Himself who had given those instructions to Moses back at Mount Sinai. Jesus was not going back on His own word, He was not contradicting Himself. In essence, He was saying, “there was a time when I dealt with you in this way because of your limited understanding, there was a time for childish reasoning, now you are going into the light of something greater, and it is time for a greater understanding of God and His purposes. God is leading you into a greater understanding of His true nature and you can't stay with those limited concepts.”

Many of us are still limited to Old Testament thinking in too many things! It is true that in the Old Testament, there is a major emphasis on forgiveness of sins rather than the removal of sin, however, a proper understanding of the gospel as revealed in the life and teachings of Jesus and His apostles, leads to the conclusion that the gospel is about removing sin , removing the nature of sin , not simply overlooking individual actions of sin, as was emphasized in the Old Testament. In the Old Testament when a person stole something, he got forgiveness for one action. He brought his lamb and by this act, said, “I'm sorry I stole.” He killed the lamb and his individual act of sin was forgiven, but at the same time there might have been covetousness in his heart and he might have had eyes on his neighbor's wife. Those sacrifices never took away sin, they only expressed regret for individual actions.

The real problem

In the Old Testament every act of transgression was treated as an individual sin, but in the New Testament a greater understanding of sin is revealed. There we see that the problem is not what we are doing, it is not the one sin. In solving the problem of sin, it is not the stealing or the killing or the lying which needs to be dealt with. Rather, the root of the problem must be dealt with and the problem is whatever is causing these harmful actions. Jesus made it plain in the following passage:

And he said, That which cometh out of the man, that defileth the man. (21) For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, (22) Thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness: (23) All these evil things come from within, and defile the man. (Mark 7:20-23)

I once heard the story of a woman who went to prayer meeting week after week and constantly prayed the same prayer. Every week her prayer would be, “Lord, please take these cobwebs away from my heart.” At first, there were hearty amens from the other brethren, but as the same request continued, week after week, month after month, the amens were fewer and more muted. Finally, one night when it was the turn of another brother to pray, he said, “Lord, please kill the spider which is making all these cobwebs in our sisters heart!”

The problem is not the cobwebs, the problem is the spider. The problem is not the wrong actions which men do, the problem is the nature which is producing these wrong actions. Our actions only show what we are.

At the end of time, there will be a judgment based on an examination of our actions, there is no question about that. But it is not because actions really are the problem, it is because those actions reveal the truth about a person's nature. Those actions prove that a person possesses either the carnal nature of the lost sinner, or the nature of Christ, the heritage of the born-again Christian. So, our actions will be examined, but our actions are not what saves us or makes us lost, it is our relationship to Christ. It is whether we have the carnal, or the spiritual nature.

In the Old Testament God presented His truth in heavily veiled illustrations. God was teaching people that sin is the thing which brings death. Every sin was accompanied by the corresponding death of an animal! But as the Bible tells us, the blood of bulls and goats could never take away sin. Forgiveness never really solved the problem , it never really dealt with the problem, it just expressed the reality that there was a deeper problem. It is in the New Testament that we come to grips with the real issue. God is not trying to cancel actions, God is trying to get rid of the root, the disease inside.

Why Jesus had to die

That is why Jesus had to die, that is why He had to take our humanity with its weakness - that is why he had to bring divinity to unite with humanity so that divine nature could defeat the sin principle and put it to death in human nature, thereby producing a new human life where sin has been defeated.

Now he says, “I have this life, do you want it?” It is ours if we choose to believe, to unite with Him by faith, He came to do for us what we could not do. The Bible tells us in Roman 8:3,

For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. (Rom. 8:3,4)

No wonder the apostle Paul exclaimed, “thanks be to God for His unspeakable gift!” God has given us eternal life and this life is in His son, it is a gift of God, a life that is divine, and also human, coming from the new father of the redeemed human race, one who has conquered on our behalf and gives us His victorious life, freely as a gift.

Can we by trying change the color of the Ethiopian's skin? Can we by trying remove the spots from the leopard? Only God can work this miracle. No human being can accomplish it. God could not have left salvation in my hand, He could not have left in up to me, I, myself, could never have made it, but I thank God for the gift of His Son.

All of us were cursed by Adam, his actions put all of us under the curse, but God says, “I am not sending my son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world. I am going to do for you what you cannot do, and if you will believe, that's all I'm asking of you.” The wonderful thing is, even the most worthless one of us can believe, we have that capacity, we can read the word of God and believe it, and He says, “if you believe what I have done for you in my son, and will accept my grace and my gift you shall have salvation.”

When we view things from the perspective of the law, from an Old Testament perspective, we find our understanding of the plan of salvation being based on legal issues. The law cannot condemn a person for being a carnal person, but it can condemn him for committing acts of sin. The law does not ask what we are or what goes on in our hearts, it asks, “what have you done?” and it condemns the individual action. Therefore the law keeps us always measuring ourselves from the perspective of our actions, rather than the perspective of our nature. When we relate to God on the basis of law we fail to deal with the true issue, we have to stay on the legal level. Everything about our Christian structure has to be built on that idea that it is a legal issue, and we inevitably build our ideas on that foundation.

A miracle of God

We need to see that it is not about a response to the law, it is about God changing our nature, it is about a miracle which only God is able to accomplish. When I started focusing on the message of Righteousness by faith, somebody commented, “you know what I realize? I realize that many Adventists are denying the new birth. What they believe in is salvation by education.” The more I have become familiar with the arguments, the more I have come to realize that it is true. People teach you that if you are educated the right way from childhood you will grow into righteousness. But why does Jesus say, “except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of heaven?” The word of God says we must be born again because the way we are born the first time puts us at enmity with God. The carnal mind is not subject to the will of God and it cannot be

The Christian life is a miracle. It is an act of God and can only become a reality by the supernatural indwelling of His holy spirit. We need to understand that we must come in contact with supernatural things. Christianity is not just another religion where its advocates grope around, trying to achieve moral excellence by studying a certain philosophy. It is not a matter of Christianity teaching more noble morals than other religions. The God of Christianity is a God of miracles and He accomplishes one of the greatest miracles when He transforms a carnal sinner into a spiritual saint.

Adam brought sin, but Christ brought righteousness, the problem is solved. There was death, but Christ brought life, there was condemnation, but He brought righteousness.

Why the law?

The question is, “why then, the law?” What part does the law play, since death is solved and condemnation is solved by Christ alone? Romans 5:20 says

Moreover the law entered, that the offence might abound. But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound: (Rom 5:20)

In other words man was condemned by Adam's sin. Adam's offence brought all of us under condemnation. We all felt the consequences of “the offence.” But the law came into the picture to make that condemnation even greater. Adam's sin resulted in the condemnation of all men. All men became carnal and capable of only sinful actions. But most people don't understand this. God brought the law into the picture to show us what our behavior should be like, and so the law says to us, “you must obey,” and you say, “I shall, I shall,” but you don't, and you discover something is wrong with you. “I can't, I can't,” and the law becomes our school master to drive us to Christ.

May God help all of us to come to the place where we recognize that when the law says, “you must, you must,” our response must be to turn to Christ. We must not stop with the law, otherwise it will be the end of the road for us, we will obtain nothing but disaster, frustration, emptiness and eventually death. The law's purpose is to point us to Christ, that's why it entered the picture, that we might be justified by faith. So the law has a legitimate purpose, it has a good place in God's plan, but that place is not to save us, but to bring us to Christ to make us understand our incapability, our nothingness so that we might turn to Christ.


If we continue our reasoning on the basis of the limited Old Testament concepts, then we come to this question, “what is the opposite of forgiveness?” If a man is not forgiven, according to the limited concept where we are dealing with justice and legal issues, what is the consequence? Justice demands the person's condemnation. If the person is not forgiven, then justice must take its course. Human beings work on the level of justice, because no man can change a man's heart, so we have to operate on the basis of justice. We don't have a problem with legal systems, because the Bible says that God puts them in place to be a terror to evil doers. Where people don't have natural inclinations to do good, rules have to be put in place to discipline them and to preserve order.

The law is placed there for the person who is naturally against it –the law is not made for a righteousness person (1 Tim. 1:9), but if we deal with the limited concept of the legal system, we would recognize that the opposite of forgiveness is justice and condemnation. The systems of this world operate on this judicial level.

Let us suppose that a man killed somebody forty years ago, then ten years later he became a Christian and turned his life around and became a model citizen. All thoughts of murder are removed from his mind. Forty years later the police discover that he had committed this act of murder so long ago in the past. What will happen to this man? He will be condemned and possibly be executed. What he is now, does not matter, it is the action which he committed forty years ago which is considered. The law must be satisfied, this is how justice works,

When people understand things only on the judicial level, they naturally begin to impute attitudes and motives to God in keeping with their own limited understanding. Out of this kind of misconception has grown doctrines like “eternal burning hell.” Those who teach this horrible doctrine, say that God's judgment is of such a nature that if you sniff your fingers at the wrong time and you don't happen to say, “I'm sorry,” God will roast you over an eternal burning fire for all the ages of eternity. They will say that “justice demands it!” What a tyrant would be this thing called “justice,” so that even God must subject himself to it, and do things so utterly contrary to His nature of love and mercy!

That is where we end up when we view the great controversy and the plan of salvation as a legal issue. Seventh-day Adventists have a modified version of it in our faith. We may not teach the doctrine of eternal burning, but we still believe in this inflexible system of action and law and penalty, whereas really and truly what God has been doing all this time has been working to overturn the consequences (not penalties), that sin brought upon humanity.

In the Old Testament, the issue was, sinful actions and penalties. This cannot be denied. The law entered at Mount Sinai, and where the law enters there must be penalties. Where there is law there must be penalty, So when God brought in the system of law He also introduced penalties and judicial systems; but there is a higher level where God is operating on the basis of action and consequences.

Adam brought death and corruption into the human family. The real consequence of sin is separation from God, which leads ultimately to death. So sin kills us not because God chooses to separate from us and hurt us, or wound us, but it kills us because it brings a barrier between us and God which results ultimately in our death.

If we look at the people in the Bible who never died, such as Enoch and Elijah, we will see that they were people in whom God abolished sin. Moses almost made it into that number, he almost never died, but at the end, self-will (sin) got the better of him, and so God could not allow him to go into the promised land. God had to teach the lesson that sin in the smallest degree will destroy us. So Moses had to die, the lesson had to be taught.

When we think of justice, what concepts do we often associate with the word?

1. Punishment: We associate this with justice, and what is punishment? It is suffering imposed upon a person because he does wrong.

2. Retribution: We also associate justice with retribution, which is suffering in proportion to the transgression.

3. Vengeance: Then there is also vengeance. Vengeance is hurting a person to satisfy your own feelings of being hurt.

All of these are attitudes we have attributed to God because we have dealt with him on the judicial level. People attribute these things to God and so they end up dead scared of Him, anxious to please Him so that His punishment wont fall on them, so that His vengeance wont reach them. They think that He wants to cause them suffering because of their wrongs, they think that He wants them to suffer in proportion to the sins they have committed, they think He wants to hurt them to satisfy Himself for the hurt they have caused Him. They don't understand that all this time God's heart is wounded and bleeding as His hands are stretched out and He is pleading, saying, “come to me that I might give you life, don't you understand that I love you and all I want to do is to take away your sin forever so that your suffering and mine will come to an end?”

A True Picture of God

In the New Testament we see Jesus working hard to give humanity the right understanding of God and to enable us to grasp these truths:

For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. (18) He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. (John 3:17-18)

He that believeth not is condemned already, but not by God. God never condemned him, his own resistance of God, his unbelief, condemns him to death, condemns him to a life of separation from God, condemns him to a life of misery not because God wants it to be so, but because God is unable to save those who refuse to come to him.

In Luke 9:52,55 we read,

. . . .and they went, and entered into a village of the Samaritans, to make ready for him. (53) And they did not receive him, because his face was as though he would go to Jerusalem. (54) And when his disciples James and John saw this, they said, Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them, even as Elias did? (55) But he turned, and rebuked them, and said, Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of. (Luke 9:52-55)

Who was it that sent fire from heaven in the time of Elijah? It was God who did it. Now the disciples came, and they wanted to do the same thing because these Samaritans were also rejecting the Son of God. They thought they had as much justification as Elijah did, but Jesus rebuked them sharply, saying, “you don't know what manner of spirit you possess.”

But if it was right in Elijah's time, why was in wrong in the disciples time? does God change? No He doesn't. In the Old Testament God had to teach some lessons graphically, insomuch that he did certain things that are not always easy to understand. He had to operate in harmony with the system of law which He had set up. Laws require penalties and those penalties must be carried out, otherwise the system of law means nothing at all. This is why Moses had to die when he broke the law at the last moment before entering the promised land. Nevertheless, we should always remember that although Moses died without seeing the promised land, under the system of law, yet, under the system of grace, he has already received his reward in heaven!

God had to deal with people that way under the Old Covenant, because they were primitive in their understanding and in their religion, and they had to be dealt with in keeping with the primitive system. But now Jesus had come to introduce the age of the kingdom. He was bringing greater maturity and understanding of God's nature, character and ways and Jesus had to let his disciples see things as they really are. Basically, He was saying to them, “you don't understand what was happening in the Old Testament. You thought that was God's attitude and God's mind, but that is not how God feels about people. Even when I did it back then in the Old Testament, it hurt me badly to have to do it, but now the time has passed when I teach people by those methods. Now is the time for the reality and it is time to understand what God is really like.”

Let us learn the difference between the symbol and the reality. If we don't understand what was happening there under the Old Covenant , we get very confused and we end up with a kind of Mosaic God who sometimes is nice, but sometimes is very bad.

Our God is not like that. It is true that God killed persons in the times of the Old Covenant. It is true that He commanded the death of many thousands of people. These things cannot be honestly denied by any Bible student. However, when we realize that the entire system of the Old Covenant was representational, that it was a type and a teaching tool, then we recognize that the Old Testament behaviour of God does not represent the way He really is in terms of His character, and that many of the actions which He commanded in the Old Testament are not necessarily eternal actions. For example, when He put Moses to death on Mount Horeb, this was an illustration of the danger of sin, but it was not the reality of Moses' destiny. God Himself brought Moses back to life and gave Him everlasting life. Moses' reality is everlasting life, through God's grace, not eternal death as suggested by his death on Mount Horeb, because of his transgression of the law. The death on Horeb was illustrative, not reality. There were undoubtedly many, many such instances in that age and under that system. That is why when we consider the ultimate destiny of people, we must view the question from the perspective of God's love and grace, and not the perspective of the system of law, nor even from the perspective of God's actions in the Old Testament.

For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. (16) The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: (Rom 8:15-16)

For ye are not come unto the mount that might be touched, and that burned with fire, nor unto blackness, and darkness, and tempest, (19) And the sound of a trumpet, and the voice of words; which voice they that heard entreated that the word should not be spoken to them any more: (20) (For they could not endure that which was commanded, And if so much as a beast touch the mountain, it shall be stoned, or thrust through with a dart: (21) And so terrible was the sight, that Moses said, I exceedingly fear and quake:) (22) But ye are come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, (23) To the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, (24) And to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel. (Heb 12:18-24)

Do you have the assurance that He is your Father? Can you speak to Him freely and openly without reservation, knowing of the unfathomable love of the Almighty Being who condescends to be our Friend? Do you know it?

Let not the spirit of fear abide in our hearts, let there be no reservation between our wonderful God and us. Love Him, cleave to Him, and believe His promises. He has glorious things in store for us.

Restoration Ministries

Restoration Ministries is dedicated to the promotion of the truths contained in the word of God. In particular to the restoration of those truths which have been cast down to the ground and trampled underfoot by the papacy, and adopted by her daughters.

Our purpose is to motivate men and women to commit themselves wholly to the task of personal preparation for the coming of the Lord, and to the taking of the final warning message to every nation, kindred, tongue and people.



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